For as much publicity as the free upgrade and the concurrent pledge of an always-evolving operating system got, neither of those moves was a first: Mobile operating systems, notably Apple's iOS and Google's Android, had been distributed and updated in the same fashion for years. Apple had also given away its OS X upgrades since 2013 with that year's Mavericks.
But it was still a stunning departure for a company that historically milked the last drop of revenue out of Windows.
March-June 2015: Get your copy here!
In late March, Microsoft began seeding some of the PCs eligible for the free Windows 10 upgrade with an application dubbed "GWX," for "Get Windows 10."
The GWX app was eventually pushed to all eligible devices via Windows Update. Microsoft served GWX silently -- most users automatically got it without knowing -- but kept it hidden for weeks or even months on customers' PCs.
Microsoft triggered the appearance of GWX on PCs on June 1, at which time users could "reserve" a copy of the Windows 10 upgrade through the app. The reservation was essentially a way to queue customers for the day when the OS was to launch, since there was, of course, no shortage of copies to be handed out.
There were good reasons for getting customers to line up for the upgrade: By delivering the Windows 10 bits in "waves," Microsoft could better manage the load on its servers and content delivery network. It could also use the process to iron out bugs and fix problems that those first in line might encounter, and try to minimize those proactively by using GWX to scan each system for upgrade compatibility before "confirming" the reservation.
But Microsoft's plan also generated an artificial sense of urgency, a tactic long used by sellers to drum up interest. No operating system had been promoted in that way before. iPhone owners, for example, have never been asked to "reserve" a copy of the next version of iOS, for the simple reason that there has been an endless supply.
The effectiveness of GWX and its reservation process in producing urgency was demonstrated by the outcries on Microsoft's own support discussion groups from customers who didn't receive GWX, couldn't find it where it was supposed to be, asked why they had not been able to claim a copy of the upgrade, or wondered how they could grab the bits without GWX.
July 2015: Bits in the background
As launch neared, Microsoft began serving the Windows 10 upgrade files to customers who had reserved it. It did not notify users when it flipped the switch -- they effectively authorized the download when they asked for the upgrade earlier -- but delivered the bits in the background.
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